A strange thing is happening in the shrinking sports car market: These low-slung, asphalt-shredding scalpels are jacked up and headed off the twisty cobblestone roads and onto the dirt for some fun.
It may seem like a contradiction to take a vehicle prized for its low center of gravity and sticky track-ready tires, lift it off the ground for a short distance, and then fit balloon tires. But that’s exactly what Porsche did with its new $220,000 911 Dakar model, and Lamborghini is launching the Huracan Sterrato with a similar intent. The Porsche charges into the dust with 473 hp, while the Lamborghini has 602 hp. This is not some crazy mistake. These companies have been responding to what enthusiasts have been doing for themselves in recent years, as custom “safari” 911 builds have become all the rage.
Do you think this is a period of temporary insanity that will soon run its course? Then look no further than the motorcycle market, where Ducati did exactly the same with their traditional sports bikes when they created the Scrambler in 2014. The debut of this bike set off a bombshell in the then-stagnant motorcycle market, and now Benelli, BMW, Husqvarna, Indian, Royal Enfield and Triumph all offer their versions for scramblers. All of these bikes feature off-road capable tires, long-travel suspension that can absorb bumps, and a high-mounted exhaust that lifts off the road when riding on the trail.
Ducati has turned this unique model into an entire sub-brand, with a whole family of Scrambler variations, including the inevitable versions with street-oriented tires that turn off-road sports bikes into street bikes!
Scrambler bikes have become the motorized equivalent of classic rock, based on this description from JD Power. “Today, the term scrambler motorcycle refers to a distinctive look, with a vintage stripped-down style that combines the functionality of older models with the flexibility of modern construction.” They have even been subject to academic scrutiny, as evidenced by the publication of “Scrambler: A Type of Motorcycle” by the International Research Journal of Engineering and Technology.
Equally authoritative from Pirelli, the company tasked with providing the dual-use on/off-road tires for many scrambler bikes, says the name comes from the rerouting of components from the two types of machines, which evokes an image of a pair of eggs being cooked together omelette.
Now Pirelli will be faced with the challenge of finding similar scrambling tires for its four-wheeled customers. “I absolutely believe that opportunity exists,” says Ducati North America CEO Jason Chinnock.
“We saw this as an opportunity to grow the Ducati brand by bringing a product that was non-intimidating, easily accessible and brought a smile,” he adds. This accessibility can be important. Today’s sports cars have become so incredibly capable that their owners may not feel they have the ability to maximize their performance. And off the slopes, they certainly don’t have many opportunities to do so.
Sporty scramblers with long-travel suspension and balloon tires are much more comfortable in everyday use, and when there’s a chance to hit a trail or dune, they’re up to the task.
A lifted Miata for $250
Chinnock says he likes what he sees in the 911 Dakar, because “it’s definitely a 911.” The adaptation abroad has not changed the character of the car. Automakers know this, as Porsche famously won the Paris-Dakar Rally in 1986 with a facelifted version of its 959 sports car. A third Porsche, running the course as a support vehicle for the two lead cars, finished sixth!
In 1982, Ferrari entered a modified 308 in the Monte Carlo Rally, although this race is run entirely on tarmac, however poor the surface in places. And Nissan won the East African Safari Rally with a 240Z sports car in 1971. Normally, the protagonists in such events were tough off-road machines built using compact hatchback casings over a purpose-built off-road chassis.
In 2016, Mark Rivera had the idea of creating an off-road sports car and lifted a Mazda MX-5 Miata to create a car that is fun to drive in the dirt. His company, Paco Motorsports, started with a simple three-inch lift kit that added ground clearance and allowed for off-road tires. “We’re not off-road kids, we just wanted to play in the snow a little bit,” explains Rivera. But then she posted photos on social media and “the internet went crazy.”
One nice thing about the lift kit is that it doesn’t fundamentally modify the car, so owners can change it back to a regular Miata if they so choose. However, demand quickly grew from the simple lift kit to the Offroadster, a play on the convertible Miata’s roadster body style. “That was popular, so now we must be doing really well,” Rivera says, recalling what he was thinking at the time. “We did the suspension design in CAD to get as much wheel travel as we can and softened the suspension so the wheels can move through the full range of motion.”
Customers can choose between the $250 3-inch lift kit, a so-called “mid-kit” for about $2,000, or a full Offroadster conversion kit for about $8,500.
An off-road Lamborghini for $270,000
At the other end of the spectrum, Lamborghini offers the Sterrato version of the Huracan super sports car at a starting price of $270,000. “With the Sterrato’s high-speed all-terrain philosophy, we have uniquely combined the driving experience of a true super sports car with the fun of driving a rally car,” explains Lamborghini chief technical officer Rouven Mohr in the company’s Sterrato press release. “Lamborghini cars always deliver emotions: the Sterrato offers a new degree of driving thrill,” he promises.
This proliferation shows the potential for these safari-style builds (Indian automaker Tata owns the trademark for the Safari name, so unless they strike a deal, other manufacturers won’t be able to use that word in a car’s name) to become full product section. Porsche CEO Oliver Blum told British’s Car magazine thinks exactly that. “Why not a third pillar, apart from the sporty GTs and heritage models? Why not off-road too?’ asked. “Now we will see how the success of the Dakar will develop in the market,” continued Blume. “And then maybe there will be more. The door is now open…”
It remains to be seen what else Porsche will pass through this open door, but if the motorcycle market is any indication, we can hope to see a golden age of dirt-slinging sports cars that, as a bonus, prove to be more comfortable to drive than their road-centric ancestors.